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Teachers, counselors and librarians ask Pinellas School board to spare them in budget cuts

Members of the audience show appreciation for a speaker from the audience addressing the Pinellas School Board on budget cuts by quietly waving hands in the air after being told they could not loudly applaud Tuesday.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Members of the audience show appreciation for a speaker from the audience addressing the Pinellas School Board on budget cuts by quietly waving hands in the air after being told they could not loudly applaud Tuesday.

Librarians pleaded. Guidance counselors pleaded. Teachers pleaded.

For more than an hour Tuesday night, Pinellas school district employees asked the School Board to spare a litany of jobs from $60 million in projected budget cuts.

"You can't be efficient with children. You can only be effective," guidance counselor Patricia McDaniel told the board as 25 counselors stood and 70 audience members looked on. "And the only way to be effective is to have time to build a relationship."

The outpouring came as the School Board wrestles with a sixth consecutive year of deep cuts, brought on by fewer students and fewer state dollars. Last week, district officials put forth an initial proposal that called for the elimination of nearly 400 positions, including 70 guidance counselors, about 60 media specialists, dozens of teachers and scores of support workers.

The proposal is not a done deal. The board will continue to consider its options in coming weeks, including at a workshop Tuesday, and some ideas are subject to bargaining with unions. Board members have said they want to have a relatively settled budget by the time the school year ends June 8.

"The budget process is fluid," superintendent Julie Janssen said before speakers began lining up. Despite initial recommendations, budget and finance staff continues to scour for options that will "make less impact on our schools and our employees."

In the meantime, Tuesday's showing left no doubt that employees will publicly press their case.

"Our media centers have been taking cut after cut over the past seven years," said Kate Kohler, a media specialist at Palm Harbor University High. "If we continue gutting our school libraries, we are sending a negative message about our priorities to our students and our parents."

Under the district's initial proposal, guidance counselors and media specialists are especially at risk. The proposed cuts would eliminate 21 guidance counselors in middle schools, 12 in high schools and whittle the number in elementary schools from one per school to one for every two schools.

Zoe Howald, the guidance counselor at Rawlings Elementary, wrote in an e-mail to board members last week that her student load would grow from 700 to 1,400 if the cuts come to pass. She listed some of the students counselors work with, including a second grader who found his mother's body after she died by suicide and a first grader who woke up to find her baby sister's body wedged between the mattress and the wall.

The student "told me she couldn't get the look on her sister's face out of her mind," Howald wrote. "These cases are not unique to me. We all deal with these issues on a daily basis and every day we come to school, we do not know who we will be counseling."

"Everybody who spoke tonight, everybody had a valid point," board member Peggy O'Shea told some of the speakers who remained until the end of the meeting. "We'd love to keep the staffing we have . . . but as you know, we're in very challenging times.

"I know you feel like you're singled out right now," she added. "We are looking at all kinds of different options."

Many speakers weren't convinced the district had squeezed all the savings it could from other areas outside the classroom. Some argued that administrators weren't bearing their fair share of the pain.

Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black questioned what became of $18.8 million in federal money awarded to Pinellas last year through a extensive education jobs bill. The district received $21.6 million from the program. But Black pointed to budget documents that suggested one of the district's reserves — which had been plumped up with the federal money — was shrinking from $33.8 million to $15 million.

The union is "requesting a full accounting of the 18.8 million with a detailed listing of all positions included, and hired, that were added this school year," Black told the board.

Board chair Carol Cook asked chief financial officer Fred Matz to offer a detailed explanation at the workshop Tuesday.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Teachers, counselors and librarians ask Pinellas School board to spare them in budget cuts 04/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 11:10pm]
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